“You have your mother’s eyes”
This is in answer to the widespread love for Snape’s character after realizing that he had performed every act of sacrifice in his undying love and devotion to Lily Potter, Harry’s late mother.
Snape’s entry is an interesting one, and I originally loved his character because by the end of the first book, he proved something that I felt had never been proved before: In a novel, you can be a jerk, and hate the novel’s protagonist, but at the same time, be a good person who does the right thing. This, for me at twelve was a new idea. I loved it. I thought, he’s wrong about many things, biased, cruel, and picks on Harry, for no other reason it seems than the fact that every one loves him, The logical (but still limited by her age) Hermione assumed that Snape was the man responsible for attempting to kill Harry. As children’s novels go, this structure seemed set to me. But in the end, when it was found that he had saved the Boy Who Was About To Get Killed Because He Didn’t Listen To Reason, I realized (or thought) that Snape had done something that no one else in the entire series would do. He had proven Hermione Granger wrong. He was a good guy. Not in the sense that anyone would give him awards for niceness, but he simply had shown a trait that the other heroes including Hagrid and later on, Dumbledore, seemed to lack; maturity. He had proven the range there existed to being a character. You aren’t just good or just bad, in your morality. You can be an asshole, but do the right thing, because it’s right. Because it’s wrong to let an eleven year old boy die, no matter how much you hate him. Again, let me clarify, this doesn’t make him a hero. It does, however, make him very interesting. Because it made him human. Or so I thought.
In other children’s books, even the ones with more complex characters like Percy Jackson, the general rule was: if you hate the cute, intrepid, strong kids, you turn out to be evil. If you like them, you’re good. Mrs. Dodds is a Fury, Mr. Brunner is Chiron. I was happy, because I thought Snape broke that rule. In real life, we hate teachers that pick on us for no reason. Anyone who has been subject to bullying often wonder “What did I do wrong?” and never get an answer. But JKR seemed to say that teachers may seem to hate you, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they will actively let you come to harm. It turns out that she was actually saying is they have a reason for picking on you, because they could never get over your mother.
Snape was a much more complex character before “Always”. He couldn’t be explained fully- petty meanness and bullying rarely can, especially when coupled with his insistence on doing the right thing against all expectations. Every hero we know and trust within the novel, from Sirius to Tonks will look at Snape and either misunderstand him, hate him or assume he should only be trusted on Dumbledore’s word. In response to his questionable (ahem, biased) attitude toward his students is the much justified hatred from Ron, Harry and the Gryfindors. They can hate him all they like, for picking on them, but he will continue to be a jerk, and also save their lives, because he is a talented, intelligent wizard whom they can’t actually do without. He seemed to symbolize a lot of what I thought was Slytherin- cunning, determination, loyalty to his people, uncaring of what anyone else thinks, but also his own rigid moral code, separate from the others, which he would not break or bend. Equally justified is the blind adoration of Draco Malfoy toward his Potions master. The Slytherins, too, have his protection, he’s just nicer to them while he’s at it. But, in the final book, just when I thought I’d lost enough of my HP loves, JKR attempted to purify his intentions which caused him to act this way. The author in my humble opinion, created a much less interesting and much more melodramatic, plain, unrealistic and- I’ll say it- grating character.
I was likely to trust Snape even after his killing Dumbledore, because thanks to literally every other book before it, I had understood, that with Snape, everything is a lot more complicated and grey than it seems. Turns out, I was right. Also, I was wrong.
I read Snape’s Worst Memory, and I initially thought was a powerful comment on bullying. It is often something we carry with ourselves for years after wards, whether we want to or not. Yes, they were children when they did it to us, yes, it seems more mature to let it go and never think on it again, but the human brain is never so quick to let you forget. Emotions, too are messy. Bullying is, simply put, emotional abuse, and it leaves scars on you whether or not you want it to. It changes, affects and sometimes destroys you. If you think that school shootings are an extreme reaction to bullying, in the absence of outer influence, every reaction is only as big or small as the action that caused it. I liked this scene. It showed a vulnerability. A sensitivity. One that many deem to be shameful, immature, or just plain stupid, which seemed to be given importance by the author. It explained his own childish prejudice toward Harry, or so I thought, and revealed a similar vulnerability inside Harry, who knew how it felt to be a victim of cruel taunts and humiliation.
We know what happened to his character. He turned out to be, not a man who was cold, largely mature and talented, struggling with his own difficult past being reflected by his proximity to a young child who couldn’t seem to stay out of trouble. Every act of helping Harry, wasn’t magnified by the fact that he suffered the relatable trauma of being bullied and friendless in high school, which he was reminded of every day by Harry. If I had to constantly save the daughter of the girl who picked on me in high school, I’d be grumpy when I did it too. Every action was diminished by the fact that his trauma was the long ago death of Lily Potter.
Many characters in the novel have had loved ones taken away by Voldemort and his supporters. It makes the stakes real, the drama relatable. Harry, the hero, Neville Longbottom (another character ruined in the end, which I will save for another post), to just name a couple. However, if you tell me that Snape saved Harry not because he was being moral, but because he was being emotional, I now see a character who was immature. I see someone who falls behind a long tedious line of tragic heroes- for that is what the once undefinable Severus Snape is now reduced to. He has gone from being a man who’s more or less all right, to a man who is fanatically devoted to a woman who he met at the age of ten, who he lost because of one accidental slur. This means the girl probably never understood him anyway. It also means this man never changed, found himself, or his idea of a relationship after his teens. This is a man who stayed in love with the same woman from the age of ten to the age of sixty(ish). This sounds like an unhealthy relationship, an obsession, a product of his love-starved childhood, rather than true love. He didn’t spend time with her after the age of fifteen. He was in love with a fifteen year old girl when he was fifty. He was in love with her idea, not her person. The main character would not have survived if Snape had ever decided to stop loving this idea, put his past behind him, to give up this near-religious devotion. The Snape in the earlier books may not have been as cuddly, but he would never have let innocents come to harm. Apparently, that protection is just limited to Harry. We don’t need a dumb reason to be cruel to the main protagonist, which in the end makes no sense. He loved Lily, why would he hate her son for having the same eyes? Green eyes of that shape, color and size can’t be one of a kind. Will he be pointlessly cruel to every person with those eyes? Some people may argue it’s because he’s her son from another man, his bully, but unfortunately that’s not how the world works. I’m sure people with more knowledge than I can piece apart the exact nature of Snape’s codependency, and people with more experience than I can better debate the difficulty of giving up love or putting a turbulent past behind you for good. But I will merely debate JKR’s narrative choices. This man apparently had the courage to move worlds and save Harry, but not the courage to tell this woman how he felt. This, as a character trait is frustrating, but is the only one I can find to be mildly compelling. But this doesn’t save him. He has turned from a force of nature to a lovesick puppy, who won’t save a boy for the sake of saving a boy. In fact, in his lowest point as a character, he won’t even debate the ethics of letting him be sacrificed in an unfortunate Jesus metaphor. Dumbledore jests that Snape is getting fond of Harry, simply because he wants to let Harry live and is showing what I would have assumed to be his moral outrage toward treating a vulnerable, trusting person that way. No. He was in love with the boy’s mother. It’s disappointing, demeaning and infuriating, not just to what I had seen so far from him, but in relation to Harry. Did neither of the men who decided Harry fate remotely care about the boy? Why then, should the audience care any more about Harry? In this point in the narrative, any reason to be emotionally invested in Harry’s journey is neutered. He has been reduced from a brave, strong, powerful man, to a puppet and a pawn in other people’s fate. He is then complicit in it, even naming his son after the two people who sentenced him to death for the greater good, neither of whom cared about his happiness, neither of whom saw him as a person. This is the drastic emotional consequence within the narrative of explaining Snape’s motives in such a childish, forced way. It makes us detached from Harry, because his actions simply do not matter. Snape is no longer a humanitarian, who looks at the vulnerable, remembers his own helplessness and saves them because he knows that helplessness better than anyone. He is now at his core a selfish, denied, repressed human being, who only cares about his heartbreak. And from his scene with Dumbledore, begging for Lily’s life, we know he cares about nothing more. His scene in the movie picturing Snape cradling Lily’s body isn’t tragic, it’s downright creepy. Yes, it’s Snape losing the one thing he cares about, but it isn’t compelling storytelling, because this is an emotionally and morally stunted man who has not grown up, who has not gotten over his fantasy with a married woman. A woman whose dead body he is cradling in front of her baby son. This is not how healthy people react to situations, though perhaps judgement isn’t something I should pass on this character,
The biggest problem with explaining Snape’s motives isn’t that it reduced him. It is that we didn’t really need this. Snape’s unjustified anger toward Harry didn’t need to be explained. Not many children who spend their hours sitting indoors alone reading and then thinking about what they read need to be told that people can be mean and petty for no particular reason. Most of them know. What they needed to be told was that there’s a life after this. There’s a career where they can shine, no apologies to be given, people’s expectations to contradict, enough emotional maturity to save whiny children of bullies. And JKR nearly goddamn said it. She nearly created a masterful grey character who at the same time was probably the most accurate reflection of reality. She nearly created a character who was grounded in everyday problems, who was nearly shattered by the mundane, by the strain of being normal, but refused to let that hold them for long. A character who was surrounded by magic, but knew that there were demons in the world that magic couldn’t fix. A character who was seen as greasy and slimy, but didn’t let that affect his life choices. Instead she opted for an angsty, unrequited lover who existed, like movie Lupin, to make Lily Potter desirable, I can’t begin to piece apart the issues with the plain teenage melodrama of this idea. Yes, teenagers think its forever. But then they go to college, and work. They realize how wrong they are, and in how many much more excruciating and varied ways the world can continue to break their hearts. My problem isn’t that love was the answer, it was the kind of love that JKR chose to focus on. In fact, that is my biggest problem with this choice. Snape didn’t just get his heart broken by Lily. He didn’t get it broken by anyone or anything else.